Small role, big job. And when it’s OK to decline it.
OK, we’ve all heard the adage “there are no small parts, only small actors”. I was curious to see if we knew who coined it and it turns out it was none other than Stanislavski himself! People are quick interpret this phrase to mean that if an actor is upset they got cast in a small role rather than the lead, they’re being a prima donna, or at least difficult in another way. And perhaps the phrase still can mean that. But it turns out, what Stanislavski meant by that phrase was simply this: just because your role is small, it doesn’t mean it’s unimportant and it certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your all!
Furthermore, it should be well noted that playing a smaller role takes a lot of work and a lot of time from you. But hey, I get it. For the most part, actors feel like small roles (or roles that don’t have a big story) are unsatisfying. And I’m one of them, usually. The situation depends. But it doesn’t mean I never enjoyed myself when I’ve played a bit part, or didn’t get anything out of it. I had fun, met some people, had some laughs—but most notably, I networked. Remember, the audition is never over! Here’s the point: It should be obvious that when you start out your career, you can’t expect to play the lead a bunch of times. I was cutting my teeth for almost ten years in Portland before I finally started getting meaty parts. But it’s safe to say that at some point in a person’s life or career they may feel like it’s not worth it anymore to play a small role, unless they’re getting something significant out of it. (Not everyone I’m sure, but I would venture a guess and say that many people feel this way.) Don’t get me wrong, if there’s a small part you wanna play, go for it. But you shouldn’t be apologetic for declining a it if it’s not doing anything for your career, or your time.
Playing a small role takes a lot of work!
A lot of people outside the theater world don’t realize just how much work goes into playing a small part. And how much of your time. While you likely won’t be called to every rehearsal, you’ll still be called to a lot. Usually it’ll take up half your week. You may also have a long commute to rehearsal. Many times you may be called to a rehearsal and won’t even run your scene until an hour or longer after you arrive. (It should be noted that this is common in community theater, I can’t attest to whether this happens in professional theater.) These hours in your weeks and months add up! And it can be very tedious. You also have to memorize your blocking, what little lines you have, your cues, and more. You may have four lines but they’re scattered through the play. That’s four cues you have to know. Busily searching for that in your script and reviewing all this on a regular basis is time consuming. It can be easy fall into the trap of daydreaming while you’re waiting to say your line. But a real actor knows that their character is important and their presence is needed. That means your character still has a story in that universe and you need to bring that to the play. If nothing else, it adds ambiance to the scene—and an audience notices if you’re not doing your job.
And it’s not as easy as it sounds. When you’re on stage with 5 other people and there’s a lot going on, reacting to that and staying in character, while not saying anything gets monotonous. But all of this work worth it. I recently saw a production of The Crucible, and in the court room scene (and others), there were about 15 people on stage—saying nothing. But they were emotionally present. I looked at every one of them. I could see the intensity in their eyes, the tension of the world they lived in. It made a huge difference. Plus, it’s fun as an audience member to randomly shift your focus to other people on stage… it makes you feel like you’re in the people’s world—but only if the people playing these small roles are doing their job! Believe me, people notice! I recently played a few bit parts in a show that had a large cast. An audience member walked right up to me and commended me for how well I was doing and how much I brought to the play. This felt good. Even though it wasn’t a big dream role, I still had some fun and took a lot of pride in my work.
Just because it’s a small role, doesn’t mean you’re not getting anything out of it
There’s a variety of reasons people will take a small role, or several. Namely, it’s building a resume and networking. If you play a fairy in Midsummer but give a hell of a performance—and prove that you’re good to work with, the director, or literally anyone else in the show who may or may not have a project they’re producing, will want to hire you. Anyone you meet may be able to offer you a dream role! So behave! Or maybe the company offering you the part is a company you’ve worked with, and repeating a company looks good on a resume. Or, maybe a professional company is offering you a two line part, and while you may not want to do this anymore with a community theater, you will with the professional company because you’ll be breaking into professional theater. The reasons are endless.
When it’s ok to decline it.
But here’s what you’ve been waiting for: when it’s ok to decline a small role. The real answer is WHENEVER IT’S GOOD FOR YOU. If you wanna play small roles after years of doing it, you do you. But I feel there’s no shame in declining one if you have a good reason so you shouldn’t be apologetic for it. Personally, I’m at a point in my life and my career where it’s just not worth it to play an unfulfilling/small role unless I have something significant to gain from it. Would I play a two line role, in a community theater I’ve never worked with, when I’m not being paid, where I have to make a long commute to get there, etc.? Well… no. Would I do any or all of this if I was just starting out my career? Yes. And I have. And there may be a time where I change my mind, but the point is, it’s all about playing your cards right. (Also… the issue of volunteer theater? Well… I’ll save that for another article but for now I’ll say it’s a grey area and I wouldn’t have a resume without it.) But here’s the bottom line: I gave hard core performances in the roles I’ve played, big and small, and you should too.