“Look, Mom, I’m a Tree”: The Advantages of Small Parts

Tess Nakaishi

We all know the saying: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”

Yeah, whatever, Stanislavski. I still want the lead.

All actors pay their dues at some point when they see their name on the cast list under some vague label such as “Villager #3,” “Ensemble,” or “Tree.” No one auditions for bit parts, but at the end of the day someone has to do it. Often the hassle seems to outweigh the benefits. You work hard and pass up other opportunities to end up being just another forgettable face onstage. It’s tempting to insist on only settling for the bigger parts, but there are a few good reasons to tough it out on the edge of the spotlight.

Performing small parts with commitment is actually a great acting challenge. If the lead has not done his or her homework, it will show. If an ensemble member hasn’t put in the work, they can still slide by with a phoned-in performance. While main characters often get a complex backstory and well-crafted character arc, ensemble characters are lucky to get a name. This means that if an actor wants to apply the same level of care to a small part, they must use their imagination to give more complexity to their character. It’s more work, and the director probably won’t help you, but there will be a difference come opening night. Only really good actors shine in bit parts, so watching people playing less involved roles is a good litmus test of their commitment to their craft. 

The saying, “Acting is reacting” is especially true when you don’t have many lines. An actor’s true colors show when they close their mouths. Do they drop character and stare blankly? Do they fidget nervously? Do they react in overly presentational gestures? Or do they stay engaged and alert, paying attention to their surroundings? The latter is ideal, of course. When you have rehearsed a show for weeks, genuine listening can be one of the greatest challenges. Without much of a line load, the actor is free to focus more on developing listening skills which are useful for all kinds of parts.

Along with listening comes the challenge of working as a unified ensemble. Whether you are playing multiple characters, singing in a chorus, or helping with scene transitions, actors playing small parts must be especially attuned to their fellow cast members. Anne Bogart uses the term “will and grace” to describe the push and pull of acting in which sometimes an individual must take charge more (will) and sometimes step back and accept others’ decisions (grace). As part of an ensemble, this balance of will and grace is crucial. Small parts usually demand more grace, but the key to a strong ensemble is maintaining the delicate balance between these two forces so everyone is moving almost as one. Ensembles thus provide great experiences for the developing actor.

Finally, accepting smaller parts helps maintain an actor’s humility and sense of self. Acting is wonderful in that there is always more to learn and explore. Too often actors get a puffed up sense of themselves which stilts their future growth. When you accept a bit part, you take one for the team and remind yourself it is about the audience and the needs of the theatre more than your own ego. It’s a good reality check every now and then. 

Not all parts are created equal and there are certainly parts written to be less important than others, but Stanislavski is correct that the quality ultimately depends on the actor filling the role. We can all continue striving for the coveted place in the spotlight while also accepting the value of an unnamed cameo role. When viewed through the right perspective, every part, no matter the size or scope, is an indispensable acting lesson. 

Photo: Joan Marcus