By Christian Daly
As someone who didn’t really get involved in theatre until high school, and stands 6’2”, I never had the chance to be a small actor. Fortunately, however, I’ve had the opportunity to take on a variety of ‘small roles’. When I started acting, this was a position that I dreaded. I internalized common external thoughts, believing that if you had less lines, it meant you were less talented. The sage words of renowned acting teacher Stanislavski, “There are no small parts” didn’t resonate with me, and I found myself grow more competitive about parts to avoid feeling untalented. While these feelings subsided with time and experience as I continued to do more acting and take a larger variety of roles, it became tough for me to truly grasp the depth of the truth to Stanislavski’s statement until I started creating plays with some pretty ‘small actors’ in schools.
Given the nature of most narratives, there will inevitably be characters that are in the story for a longer duration than other characters. Purposes in the overall story are different as some need to be the ones changed by the story, while others help move the story along, and some might just provide something fun. Through my work in schools doing theatre creation residencies, I’ve encountered a unique problem a number of times where the children will gravitate towards playing the side characters we’ve built into the play, leaving a smaller number of kids on the lead roles, despite there being room for more to join. At ﬁrst I thought that maybe these kids just didn’t want the limelight. While this was the case in a few instances, especially for some shyer kids who were happy to just be on stage, more often than not it was because the children were drawn to the heightened traits that are more common among characters with smaller durations. These traits gave the young actors something arguably more active to play, and provided them with a better framework to ﬂesh out their characters, however they saw ﬁt.
My time on a residency in Edson demonstrated all of this for me, when working on my class’ play about a group of children who befriend the wind. While the group of children served as the primary characters to focus the story on, more of the students wanted to play characters like the French Penguins/other miscellaneous animals, the wind, and a group of tough bullies. Given the concepts alone, how am I to blame them, even I would rather play parts like that! Talent is needed to bring anything to life, not just a primary character, and seeing the wind be windy, the bullies be intense, and the penguins be french, I realized that making a play with a collage of different personalities required embracing the wackiness and heightened traits, and letting the main characters join in on this was equally important. The children in our play were no longer just normal kids, but skipping and frolicking people who played to the heights of their respective personalities.
My favorite part about leading classrooms and teaching is that I inevitably also end up learning something as well. In this case, I went and rethought the processes in my own acting craft, but mostly the question: is it easy to make a lead character boring? The answer is too often yes for myself, as I don’t feel the urge to add in larger character choices, feeling like I have to add as a type of audience surrogate. I’ve realized that this doesn’t have to be the case, because as long as the character seems authentic, the choices can be whatever they need to be. I feel like these examples are most present in the pieces children make too, because to them, their character may seem like the main character, and that treatment is a good thing. No one feels like they are onstage without purpose, and I have learned that I need to carry that energy more, in any work that I do while going forward. Through my work, I have met many small actors who know that no part is too small if you make it big like they do.