Sunday, 30 September 2012

Small Parts vs Small Actors

“There’s no such thing as small parts, only small actors.”

I bloody hate this phrase. From the very first time I heard it up until right now, it sends a shiver down my spine that is usually reserved for lecherous directors. It’s the type of phrase that’s tediously wheeled out as often as “It’s not what you know but who you know” and is usually followed by a knowing and fist smackingly smug smile.

Now, I understand the reasoning behind this phrase and, to a point, I completely understand it. Just because you only say a couple of lines, that doesn’t mean you have to sulk and whinge about it forever more. There have been plays I’ve seen where a withering look from a butler became the highlight of my evening. As Bananarama wisely said, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”  However, there are actors out there who are obsessed with the amount of lines and stage or screen time that they get. I remember at drama school we were in production where because there were so many of us and so few parts, we had to role share. To sort it out fairly, the director had counted the lines to make sure that those of us who were sharing parts all had pretty much the same amount to do. Can’t argue with that. He had these lines written down on a piece of paper that he kept tucked into his copy of the script. One afternoon he had to leave for a few minutes and left his script on the window sill. Most of us ignored this and merrily got on with whatever it was we were doing at the time (most likely pretending to explore how our character truly feels while having a little nap in the corner.) However, one actor in the group was utterly obsessed with this bit of paper. There wasn’t an hour that went by where he wasn’t musing over who had the most lines. So naturally, as soon as the director was gone, he pounced on this little slip of holy grail. Furiously he devoured it and then proceeded to make notes on everyone’s numbers. The rest of us couldn’t give a casting director’s hugely kissed arse about who had what. It was a second year drama school production that would be seen by no one. If anything, the less lines you had then the less work you had to do which meant more time spent in the student bar. The director returned and the piece of paper was hastily returned back to its resting place. The rest of the afternoon was spent rehearsing a crowd scene that we were all in. What ensued can only be described as the most boring game of Murder where Line Obsessed Actor would whisper to you throughout the scene where you stood in the pecking order. He seemed to take great delight in telling me that out of the five actresses who were sharing the main role, I was the one with the least lines. I took even greater pleasure in reminding him that out of the five actresses, I also happened to have the most dramatic scenes. Disappointment spread across his face like a crumpled tablecloth and he dragged his character-shoed feet onto his next victim.

So yes, I can see the thought behind it and I have to agree with it. However, there’s also a risk of the phrase encouraging some monumental upstaging. If you’ve been given one of those parts that has a pride-crushing lack of lines then you either accept that this piece isn’t going to be the one to bring you fame and fortune or you wring out every single movement and syllable for all it’s worth. And that’s great. For you. But what about the other people who happen to be on stage who are engaging in some pretty serious dialogue. While they’re there furthering the intricate story of the piece, you’re goose stepping in the background making the type of sweeping gestures that should only be reserved for an amateur production of Mary Poppins. There’s making full use of your stage or screen time and then there’s being a dick.

And also there are just times when the part you’ve got just isn’t that wonderful. I saw a play recently that was wonderfully written. The parts were bloody brilliant and everyone had plenty to do all except for one poor actress. Her part was so poorly written and she was the one unlucky soul on stage who really just had nothing to do. You could see in the moments when she wasn’t talking that she was desperately trying to remain engaged and keep up the paper-thin shell of a character she’d been given but sometimes there’s only so much you can do. There’s a limit to how many times you can look surprised or interested or interestingly fiddle with the hem of your skirt before you realise you might as well just sit quietly in the background until it’s time for you to leave. 

So no, maybe there aren’t small parts, maybe there are only small actors. But mainly there are lovely actors and irritating actors and you just have to make sure you’re the right one.

1 comment:

  1. Steve McQueen played with his hat every time he stood next to Yul Brynner in Magnificent 7, I'm told....

    It works the other way, too - I recently wrote a scene for seven characters and I made sure that each of the four 'guest stars' had precisely five lines each!