Adventures in the Craft of Acting: Playing Small Parts

What you should remember about those smaller parts, and how important they can still be for your craft...

By John Currivan

While we sometimes may feel like a lowly insignificant penny, the production without us is only 99p
John Currivan

There’s a saying that goes “There are no small parts. Only small actors.” Sounds like a lie parents tell to make their kids feel better, but there is wisdom in it. For myself, I’d rather say, “There definitely are small parts, but it takes 100 pennies to make a pound.” ‘Small’ doesn’t mean ‘unimportant’ and there’s never any excuse for being lazy.

Let’s face it, most of us get into the acting game because we want to play the big parts, Hamlet in Hamlet, Evita in Evita or Willie Loman, the salesman, in Death of a Salesman. However, jobbing actors can’t be choosers and we sometimes forget that playing smaller parts is a challenge all in itself.

For anyone reading this, male, female or other, who struggles to accept the size of their *cough* parts, allow me to quote the maestro Michael Caine from the timeless classic Austin Powers: Goldmember and say, “It’s not the size mate, it’s how you use it.”

Get over yourself

Now, you may have heard that some actors have this thing called an ‘ego’. This is our blessing and our curse. Ego gives us the confidence to do our jobs, but its dark side makes us think that ‘small parts’ are beneath us or worse we resent others for having ‘bigger parts’.

If you feel small or that your part is worthless then:

1) Get over yourself.

2) Get over yourself. 

3) Get over yourself again, because like any professional, you’ve got a job to do.

You might be capable of holding the audience in the palm of your hand, enthralling them with the musical timbre of your sonorous soliloquy, you could backflip, handstand, cartwheel and belch the alphabet in another show, but right now you’re a silent servant presenting Lord and Lady Whatchamacallit with a tray of crackers, and that is what you need to do. Offstage, you can still fervently wish that you were playing the Lord or Lady (or both) and you can use that passion, in a positive and aspirational way to work towards self-improvement and technical development, for your next job, but this job must still be done. If envy or resentment are allowed to settle in, they can lead to downward spirals of negativity or boredom, that can dampen enthusiasm for our work and seep into our performances.

Assess, but don’t pre-judge

We often judge roles like we judge meals. By assessing their quality and their quantity. The distinction between these two is important.

Factors for assessing QUANTITY within roles includes:

  • Time onstage/onscreen
  • Amount of lines spoken
  • Amount of action
  • Impact on the story
  • Do they have a name?

Three literary and dramatic terms for QUALITY of roles are:

  • One Dimensional - Simple, superficial, does not grow or change through the story
  • Two Dimensional - Slightly complex, one or two defining traits, changes a bit
  • Three Dimensional - Complicated, wide range of traits, experiences various emotions and situations, changes a lot

Directors, writers and editors usually control all the quantity within a role and indicate the type of work required, however we can and must, add our own details into the part as we are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the quality. Good drama doesn’t just tell one story. Each character, no matter the size or dimension of their roles, contributes to the whole thing. Often seemingly small characters have a massive impact, which we can only appreciate by shifting our viewpoints.

Factual assessment of roles is important but beware of making emotional pre-judgements and using the word just’. We describe roles, by saying it’s ‘just a servant’, or ‘just in the background’ with ‘just a few lines’. While it’s good to be humble and honest about our work, reducing ourselves to a ‘just’ can skew our perception of our value to the project and put creative obstacles in our minds before we even start. And yes… perhaps if you weren’t there on the day then they’d just get someone else to do it, but if you are there on the day then you can do it! So, at the very least, be there and just do it! (This article is not sponsored by Nike)

Be generous

I spoke in my last article about actors imagining that they are casting or reflecting light from their bodies to focus an audience’s attention. However, sometimes it is your job to blend in and become part of an active background. The ability to ‘dim or raise your lights’ or even better, focus them onto another performer, is so under-appreciated in our business, and can often be the difference between getting a job or not. The phrase ‘generous actor’ is sometimes used and performers in non-leading or supporting roles, need to be the most generous. They are there to literally ‘support’ the leads and other actors around them.

Your full range of skills may not be utilised, your character may not have a name or title, but they live in the same world as the lead roles, and without servants, Lady Whatchamacallit would have no status, no crackers and couldn’t make that clever innuendo about Lord Blatherington’s waistcoat.

Create your own purpose

Perhaps a writer only gives a character two lines in the script, but every character has a life, a family, a story, a ‘how they got here’ and a ‘where they’re going afterwards’. They have an objective in the scene, even if that’s to ‘get across the stage as quickly as possible’. The audience has no need to know or see the backstory and objectives but if it energises the performer and doesn’t interfere with the main action of the play, then go mad with it.

I’ve been lucky to work with fantastic actors in ensemble roles who have breathed life, energy, drama and fun into scenes rather than just going through the motions. I’ve watched unobtrusive unscripted, ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’ scenes that, if fleshed out and brought to the forefront, could be just as interesting as the scripted dialogue. You may be a background artist, but you’re still an artist goddammit! There is a story to be told, a life to be lived, and just because this project only shows a glimmer of this person’s life doesn’t mean they are pointless or invisible because nothing that makes the final draft, the finished edit or that hits the stage is pointless or invisible.

We are all working towards something greater

I'm not a religious person, but in my most spiritual and arty-farty moments I like to believe that we are all part of something greater and that all works of art, from a child's scrawl to the Sistine Chapel, have a connection to some universal truths, lived experiences, imagination and the human soul. In this way I feel like we should do things not just to serve our own desires and ambitions but to also give back to the world (whether they want it or not). A great work of art is so much more than just the sum of its parts and every role in a production is integral to that production (whether you want to believe it or not). While we sometimes may feel like a lowly insignificant penny, the production without us is only 99p. So, show up, do your job no matter how small, and be the shiny penny that makes the pound.


John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.

For John's other great advice on being between acting jobs, take a look here.