“There are no Small Parts, Only Small Actors”

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. 

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My Favorite Strategy for Learning a Role: Engage Your Senses

 

About a year ago I listened to to an episode of the Kwik Brain podcast all about hacking your brain in order to learn lines more efficiently. I’d recommend anyone looking for some new strategies check out the episode and the second part, too. However, of all of the concepts presented in the two episodes, only one strategy has really stuck with me and become a crucial part of my preparation for a show. I’ve now used this strategy to learn several roles, and am always eager to share with others, because it has been a game changer.

This strategy is to engage all of your senses.

Learning lines is often a very cerebral, inactive process– sitting down with a script and working at scenes over and over until you have them down. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. If you find this just isn’t cutting it for you, though, here’s another idea.

Human memory is associated very strongly with certain senses. For example, catching a whiff of a familiar perfume or tasting a familiar brand of candy can vividly remind us of certain people or times. When I eat cherry Twizzler nibs, I am effectively transported back in time to weekends at my dad’s house, when I’d buy these and eat them while I played my favorite video games. Perhaps feeling cold air or smelling dry leaves in the fall reminds you of going back to school and makes you feel nostalgic. Certain memories are so closely associated with certain sensations that seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, or tasting something from a very bad or good time can make you feel bad or good immediately upon contact.

Memory is connected to your physical senses. So how can you harness this in learning your lines?

The first thing you should try is to rehearse exactly as you will perform as much as possible. For example, if you know your blocking yet and have access to the space in which you will be performing, try memorizing your lines with the movements in the space. This way, the process is made physical– also a huge boon for memorization. Arriving early to rehearsal or staying late where possible to run choreography or blocking on the stage can therefore be even more helpful than rehearsing at home. The sights, smells, and sensations of the performance space can all serve as cues to aid in memorization. This is called context dependent memory and is an actual, scientific phenomenon!

Therefore, always opt for extra rehearsal time in the performance venue where possible. Instead of leaving early and practicing at home, capitalize on your time in the venue as much as you can!

But let’s say you don’t have access to the space– this is probably more likely for most performers, anyway.

The performance space will be unique in many sensory ways. For instance, the building might be air conditioned and frequently be cold, or might have a distinct smell. You may be able to recreate some of these experiences on your own. It would be easy to turn on the AC in your home or otherwise rehearse in cold spaces. However, it may not be possible to recreate some facets of the experience of the performance space. If this is the case, you can create your own constants across the varied spaces you will rehearse.

For example, let’s say the theater has a very particular smell. You cannot recreate this scent at home. Instead, you could wear a certain lotion or perfume each time you study your lines. This will become the new sensory context the memory of the lines is associated with. A bit Pavlovian, smelling the lotion or perfume will now remind you of the times you’ve previously rehearsed. You can wear this scent when you go to the theater for rehearsals and wear it during the performance– you’ll find it helps anchor yourself into the character and scenes because you have so associated it with the character and scenes.

You can also pair this with other senses. Taste and touch are likely the easiest. Chewing a specific flavor of gum is good example. Chew a unique flavor while you go over your lines at home. Though you probably shouldn’t chew gum in rehearsal, simply chewing a stick on the way to rehearsal and spitting it out before anything begins can be enough to get the taste in your mouth and associated with the rehearsal. You can also wear certain types of clothing or fabrics that will match those of your costumes. For example, the sensation of wearing a corset could be mimicked by wearing a (safely) tight bra or undershirt. Once you begin rehearsing in costume, the feeling of wearing the tight clothing might put yourself back into the context you felt rehearsing in tight clothing.

Even though you perhaps can’t rehearse in the exact conditions of the show, you can create your own conditions and fit them to the show yourself.

When I played Claire in an illegal stage production of The Breakfast Club I wore the same scent of perfume and lotion to every rehearsal. I also sprayed my script with the scent, so that every time I reviewed my lines, the scent was prominent. Coupled with this, I also chewed a specific unique flavor of gum on the way to rehearsals. I would always be sure to wipe off the lotion or scent as much as possible once I was done working, and kept other flavors of gum to change gears later. A year after this performance, when I smell the perfume, my brain instantly goes back to that show, and I still salivate for that flavor of gum!

This is a great way not just to memorize your lines, but also to get into character. Thinking about character motivations and interpretations while surrounding yourself with these sensory cues can turn these sensations into “triggers” for the character. This can also be the basis for some sense memory work– for example, if you apply a certain perfume you associate with sad memories just before going on stage for a sad scene, it might help put you in the proper mindset for the performance.

It is important to note that your sensory context choices must be unique. If you use a taste or scent you are already very familiar with for a character, you’ll probably already have a memory associated with that sense, and it will be less effective. For best results, use a perfume or gum flavor you have never experienced before. This provides you a completely “empty” template upon which to build your sensory context.

I have used this strategy for every big character I’ve played in recent years! I am slowly collecting a wealth of lotions and perfumes that make me instantly nostalgic for specific productions when opened.

To summarize, rehearse in the context in which you will perform, in order to trigger your context dependent memory. This means rehearsing with your physical movements, in similar dress, with similar people, in the rehearsal space under similar conditions to performance as much as possible. However, if this isn’t possible, you can create your own context by introducing certain sensory products like flavors of gum or specific, unique perfume scents, and utilize them every time you practice your lines at home, have a rehearsal, or perform the show. These will help you remember lines and blocking and can also serve as triggers to get you into character.

Try these out for your next show! It works best if you start as early as possible– create context triggers for the role even while preparing for auditions. Then, by the time the show arrives, you’ll completely associate the trigger with the show, character, and process. Hopefully this helps you as much as it has helped me!

6 Non-Theatre Subjects Every Theatre Person can Benefit From Learning More About

A single performance in theatre requires many diverse skillsets from many diverse people. There’s simply so much young actors and artists have to learn about the craft itself just to get through auditions that spending time on learning things that aren’t immediately connected to performing skills can seem like a waste. However, it’s precisely because shows require such diversity that learning everything you can about nearly every subject you can will always be of an actor’s benefit. If you’re ready to take your theatrical training beyond the basics, try moving away from acting, singing, and dancing for a bit and looking to these adjacent areas of knowledge instead!


1. Human Anatomy

I recommend every performer learn as much about anatomy as possible. As a performer, your entire body is your instrument. Your entire body must be engaged to sing, dance, and act. No matter where you plan to work in the theatre, your understanding of your own body will always be of benefit to you. Learning about anatomy gives you a better sense of how your body functions, helping you use your body efficiently and to its full capacity, while also preventing injury.

For singers and musical theatre performers, I especially recommend looking into vocal anatomy. Understanding precisely how the voice functions is a powerful thing! You can effectively learn how to “hack” the underlying structure of your voice and use it to your full advantage. It can also explain and make concrete some of the weird tips from your voice teachers you’ve never fully understood. For example, many voice teachers will talk about proper breathing. Once you understand the action of the lungs and the movement of the ribs to accommodate them, you can get a better sense of how proper breathing looks and feels.

As a small bonus point, I highly recommend learning a bit about body mapping— this will help you translate your anatomical knowledge to concrete behaviors!

2. Psychology

Directors, writers, and actors alike can all find use for training in psychology. Similar to learning anatomy, learning about psychology will help you understand how and why people work, but on a mental level. When it comes to analyzing characters and developing blocking, your understanding of psychology can create more realistic characterizations.

A large part of acting is stepping into another person’s shoes. Some basic psychology knowledge can help you do this more effectively, and move beyond the realm of feelings and emotions to scientific human behavior. One isn’t necessarily better than the other! However, if you find your acting feels overly charged or superficial, psychology might be able to help you.

Understanding psychology can also be of benefit to actors offstage. Psychology can help you understand the best practices for learning and memorizing lines, or impressing casting agents in the audition room. Understanding how your brain works and how others’ brains work is truly of benefit to anyone!

3. Speech Pathology and Linguistics

Though these are two different fields, I am lumping them together in this article because they will serve us similar purposes. Just as understanding how the singing voice works benefits singers, understanding how your speaking voice works benefits anyone who speaks. Actors do a lot of speaking. By understanding the structures that produce sound and the best practices for manipulating these structures to get desired results, you can improve your vocal stamina and volume with reduced risk of injury. Say goodbye to strained throats caused by long rehearsals!

Both of these subject areas will touch upon the anatomy of the vocal tract and how our mouths shape sounds. Speech pathology is as a discipline focussed on the correct production of speech and fixing problems therein, whereas linguistics is about language and sound as it relates to language. These are slight shades of difference to the untrained eye. A beginner’s understanding of either field can prove beneficial for anyone who uses their voice on the regular.

4. Marketing and Networking

As an actor, part of your job is to effectively “sell” yourself in an audition. How well you manage to perfect this process can have a big impact on your acting career! Therefore, becoming well-versed in how to market yourself is of dire importance for every actor.

Learning to perfect “the art of the pitch” will benefit you no matter what role you occupy in the theater. Actors pitch themselves and their characterizations to directors in auditions. Directors must pitch show choices and interpretations to artistic boards or their casts. Writers must pitch their own shows to producers. Designers must pitch their art to directors and creators. In school theatre, teachers must work to pitch the entire program to their administration and community to prove their importance! No matter where you work in theatre, you’ll find some knowledge of how to market your ideas useful. Otherwise, someone else better at it will eclipse you!

Nowadays online marketing is relatively easy, which means you have to work extra hard to stand out. Familiarizing yourself with social media algorithms and content crafting is important for anyone seeking to be seen online. Whether you are looking to expand your school program, advertise your new theatre company, or build a personal website to go with your acting resume, marketing knowledge is your ticket!

Acting is notoriously about who you know rather than what you know. Master the arts of networking with the right people and marketing yourself to them accordingly, and you may find lucrative returns.

5. Wellness, nutrition, and personal health

Basically, “how to take care of yourself.”

When your body is your instrument and you submit a photo of your face with every resume, your physical and emotional wellbeing is important. Your physical fitness will effect your stamina on stage and impact the kind of dancing and blocking you can keep up with. If you don’t exercise regularly in some form, you are handicapping yourself on stage. There is plenty to be said about the superficial beauty-queen side of acting, but leave all that aside for a moment– It is important that you are at your very best so you can be at your very best. This means eating well, getting proper rest and hydration, taking care of yourself when ill, and finding a physical activity that speaks to you.

You also need to be able to take care of your emotions and mental health. Acting means accepting a constant stream of rejection and criticism. You won’t be able to handle the work if you can’t handle this. Familiarize yourself with coping mechanisms or seek help to do so!

6. Finances

Acting is a notoriously lean profession. It doesn’t necessarily have to be! Keeping track of personal finances is a skill absolutely every actor should become intimately familiar with. I’m certainly no expert, so I have relatively little advice to offer here, except that this is absolutely crucial if you plan on attempting to make a living from theatre. Find good resources to learn from and spend wisely!


There is always more to learn! Because performing requires so many miscellaneous skills and benefits from the performer experiencing many things in life, actors shouldn’t discount the opportunity to learn about anything. All learning can be of benefit, even if indirectly. Take the time to learn something new every day!