How to Approach a Small Role | A How-To Guide for Actors
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How to Approach a Small Role

Written by on | Acting Tips

We’ve all heard the old adage ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’, and that still rings true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some considerations and techniques you should take into account when it comes time to play your small role. So today, we’re going to go over some tips and tricks to help you do just that. What is the best way to approach a small role?

What Is a Small Role?

Before we dive straight in, I’d like to offer some thoughts on what a small part really means. I think once we have a clear understanding of what a small part is and isn’t, these tips and tricks will make a lot more sense.

Today we’re going to use the term small parts for the sake of clarity but firstly, let’s dispel the myth that a part has a size. Really when it comes down to it, there are just parts. Some have more lines, and some have more screen or stage time, but they all have one thing in common, they’re all there to help tell a story. Which brings us to our first tip.

#1 Know Your Function

From the smallest amateur theater, to the biggest Hollywood production, there will always be small roles. But as we discussed before, they all have a role to play in telling a story. And each part has its own unique function in telling that story. So are you there to advance the plot in some way? Are you there for comic relief? Are you there to make the war scene look bigger? Are you there to wed the two lovebirds? Or are you there because the forest needs a tree and the production ran out of money? The better you understand what your function in telling the story is, the better off you’ll be.

#2 Forget the Size of Your Role

So you’ve deciphered what your function is in the story, but what now, Jake? I hear you ask. Now you can approach the play, web series, film, animation just like you would if you were the leading role. Knowing what story you’re telling is always going to render a better performance than just blindly going in with no idea of the bigger picture. But how?

#3 Know the Story

Read the entirety of the text that you’re working on, ideally read it a number of times. You want to have an understanding of the story itself, not just your scenes. Ask yourself these sorts of questions.

  • What is the basic story, in a few sentences or less?
  • What is the beginning, middle, and end?
  • What is the climax?
  • What are the themes?
  • What is the genre
  • What is the style?
  • What kind of world are we in?

#4 Mental Reconnaissance

Now comes the time to dig a little deeper into your own personal part in this story. Mental Reconnaissance was a term coined by Dramatist Constantin Stanislavski as part of ‘The Method’. We don’t really have time to go into all the details right now but If you wish to read up on it further follow the link! Essentially what we’re trying to do here is to mine the text for the ‘Given Circumstances’ Reading each different scene you’re in. Ask yourself these questions.

  • Who Am I?
  • Where Am I? (Country, Outer Space, The Kitchen)
  • When Am I? (Year, Month, Day, Time)
  • What Am I Doing?
  • Why am I Doing It? (Similar to Objective)
  • How Am I Going to Do It?
  • What Is My Objective? (What do I want, how am I going to get it?)

Now take all of that information and let it inform your performance!

#5 Character Work

Now that we’ve identified the basics of what the story is, and what the given circumstances are, we can get to the really fun part of a small part. The character development! Playing a smaller part allows us the opportunity to flex our imagination and determination. When you’re moulding a smaller parts character, one of the more difficult things is that you may not have a lot of information on that character in the text. But we can make this a blessing in disguise!

So long as you remain within the world of the play and don’t steal focus, you can make this character whatever you want it to be. Ideally, even with a small part, we want every character we play to have the depth and embodiment that we might find were we playing Juliet or Hamlet. Every character we play affords us the opportunity to bring a living, breathing soul onto the stage or in front of the camera. Now you don’t need to go crazy here to the point where you’re thinking more about what your character had for breakfast than you are about not bumping into the furniture, but having a well fleshed out character is always going to benefit your performance so it doesn’t come across as one dimensional. Ask yourself these sorts of questions.

  • How does this character stand?
  • What’s their inner and outer tempo?
  • How do they sit?
  • Are they confident or shy?
  • How do they speak?
  • What kind of music do they like?

#6 Be a Team Player

Being a good ensemble member is paramount to a healthy production, and a safe and enjoyable working environment. No one wants to work with someone who is unprofessional, not willing to do their job, or just plain unpleasant to be around, no matter how big, or how small a part they’re playing. So here a some tips to help you be a good team member, and colleague, no matter the size of your part, or the size of the production.

Do the work. Be as prepared as you need to be to be able to show up on the day and do your job effectively, and with quality!

Be professional. This means showing up on time, making sure you’re ready to work when it’s time to go, not messing around when others are trying to work, and being respectful and courteous to your fellow colleagues. Always remember that we are artists, but we are also workers. You’re being paid to provide a service. And of course, sometimes we might not be getting paid, which can be tough, and maybe we feel we can slack off a bit, but that doesn’t mean your professionalism needs to suffer. You can still put in the work.

Lend a helping hand. So long as you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes (By which I mean getting in the way of someone trying to do their job) by doing so, always be willing to help out. Set up chairs in the rehearsal room, help to put away props, go on book if the SM is busy) A lot of this applies to Stage, but the principal can be carried through to any medium! However…

Know when to keep to yourself. If you feel like you’re going to simply get under peoples feet by lending a hand it’s probably best to just stick to yourself, and maybe do some work on your own. If you’re ever in doubt just ask!

Don’t steal focus. It’s great that we’ve put all this work into the part that we’re playing but this can, if unbalanced, lead to a performance that is stealing focus from the story. Always remember we’re all one team, telling one story.

Conclusion

So there is some truth to that old adage in the end ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’. But now we know that there are a myriad of ways to approach a small part. If you’re ever in doubt, trust your instincts. You’re an actor for a reason. Hopefully you found these tips to be of use, and they are now firmly in your actors’ tool-belt. Now you’re ready to tackle a part of any size!

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

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